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Find Our Mortal World Enough

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I.
While Hermione mumbled, Ron watched the horizon. It had been days since Harry left—abandoned them, basically, with naught but a stupid note about not putting them in more danger and a time-delayed Full-Body Bind—days since they'd seen any member of the Hogwarts faculty or heard from any member of the Order. They had no idea if any of them were still even alive. Ron found he didn't really want to know; instead he watched out the window and told himself that so long as the horizon stayed calm, Harry at least was still okay. Until Voldemort was at the castle walls, they still had a thread of a chance. If anything had happened, somehow, he would know.

"Help me with this rosemary, will you?" Hermione asked, not raising her head from the ingredients piled on the floor. She had to be sweltering in her heavy work smock, between the fire and the weather (a fine hot summer, perfect for the end of the world), but she'd insisted on wearing it, as if Slughorn might mark her down if she didn't. Ron knew better than to argue right now, though; they'd been taking out their fear and tension on one another since Harry had left them, and he was tired, and an argument right now might ruin everything.

So he knelt next to her and minced rosemary while she mashed pansy blossoms into a colorless paste with a mortar. In the center of the room, situated rather dramatically under a skylight, a small, dented tin cauldron simmered delicately. A secret with no one to keep it from.

"Is this good?"

"A little more—we need about four teaspoons."

"That much?"

"I think."

Granted, what she thinks is usually better that what other peope know, but it wasn't really comforting that not even Hermione was sure. Though Hermione hasn't been sure about much for the past couple of months, not since Snape had been caught. Not since Harry had gone to Azkaban and come back with the news that there was one more Horcrux to destroy.

It can't be, Hermione had said firmly, at first.

It makes sense, though—Harry had been shaking, pacing, frantic, and Ron had ached with the need to comfort him without knowing how. Ginny could speak Parseltongue when the diary possessed her, he can use Nagini just like he used me, it makes sense—

Hermione had grabbed Harry then and stilled him, looking into his eyes with an intensity that Ron rarely saw in her. It can't be, she had said, because Voldemort never did the spell that would bind the bit of his soul—

Snape said it was true. He said Dumbledore warned him it might be true.

It isn't true. You're not a Horcrux.

"There—that's good." She scraped the pansies into the cauldron, then stirred while he slowly added the rosemary. The fumes drifting off the potion thickened, went grey, and an herby smell filled the tower-top, like soup. Hermione adjusted the fire underneath and consulted a thick scroll of notes, and Ron went back to watching the hazy horizon. It had taken Hermione months to invent this potion and weeks to brew it, hiding here at the half-empty school. It made Polyjuice look like kid stuff—which, he reckoned, it had been, for them. Oh, to be young again, when the only stakes were murder and expulsion, and both hypothetical, at that...

"What are you laughing at?" she asked.

"Nothing," Ron said, and brought his mind back to the present. "Just thinking."

Hermione rolled up the scroll and drew up her knees. "About what?"

"About," How fucked up we are, how serious this is, how scared I am, "about Harry."

"Oh."

Because when Hermione had been sure, Harry had believed her—had accepted her babble about spell theory and soul magic as if it had come straight from Dumbledore himself, and not just a clever witch who'd read his notes. It had been Ron who noticed the way she wrung the hem of her jumper and the breathlessness of her explainations, and Ron who had cornered her afterwards.

Are you sure Harry's okay?

Of course I'm sure.

Really?

...for the most part.

And that had been the beginning of this plan.

"It's almost ready." Hermione said, pouring from a bottle labeled pelican tears. "Just needs to simmer a bit more."

"And then?"

"Then we add the last ingredients and...and drink, I suppose."

Ron nodded. And hope it's not already too late.

She puttered about on the floor, rearranging the haphazard spray of ingredients and tools, twisting her hair. Ron sat in the window and watched her. He should've done something to comfort her, like hug or hold—the kinds of things a good boyfriend did when his girlfriend was upset. Nobody said anything about a good girlfriend comforting her boyfriend when he was scared out of his mind—maybe good boyfriends didn't admit when they were. Ron wasn't exactly an expert. He was fairly sure he probably ought to be touching her somehow, but it didn't feel right—it would've been like snogging her with Harry in the room. They didn't do that kind of thing in front of Harry, had agreed that it would make things too uncomfortable, too awkward—and somehow since Harry had left he'd never been more present.

So Ron went back to the window and watched the horizon, waited for the sky to shatter and the earth to split, or whatever would happen if his best mate really were gone.

When Hermione finally cleared her throat, Ron turned and found her kneeling over the cauldron with a silver knife and a crystal phial. "It's ready," she said. "Almost."

"What do I do?" Ron asked, kneeling opposite her.

Hermione passed him the spoon and uncorked the phial with her teeth. "Stir this in, first," she said, and let three jet-black hairs fall into the bubbling brew. Ron stirred, and watched the potion turn from matte gray to a shimmering golden-green.

"What next?"

"Give me your wand hand."

He held his right hand over the cauldron; she turned it over, stroked his palm once with her thumb, then sliced it deeply with the knife, along the line of heart. Ron hissed from the pain, but tilted his hand and let the fat drops of blood pour into the potion, leaving little blots of firey-orange where they broke the surface. Hermione stopped the bleeding with a spell, and then passed the knife to him, and he repeated the procedure on her. Her blood made spots of wine-purple, though, and his spell didn't seal her wound as well. She wiped her hand on her smock, then put the fire out and began to stir.

Ron watched with straining nerves as the colors swirled together, then began to flash and sparkle. The whole potion turned a deep gold that reminded him of the Felix Felicitas, then went an opaque white and shone. Hermione kept both hands on the spoon and stirred firm counter-clockwise strokes, even when the potion suddenly foamed up over the sides of the cauldron and scorched the floor. "...forty-seven," she murmured, "forty-eight, forty-nine—fifty."

She yanked the spoon from the cauldron and the foam subsided. Ron dared peer inside: at the very bottom lay a small amount of swirling liquid, water-clear and full of little colored sparks. "Is that how it's supposed to look?" he asked.

Hermione bit her lip, then said very quietly, "I don't know."

She conjured two small glass tumblers—shot glasses, practically—and the potion barely filled both of them. Ron took one and stared into its depths, watching the swirling pinpoints of purple and green and orange for a moment. "Ron," Hermione said suddenly. "I don't—I think this is going to work. Maybe. But I don't know it. It might kill us. We might die even if it works perfectly. It's all based on theory, and there were a few things in those books I really didn't understand, and I didn't have a chance ot test any of this, and I—I—I don't know. I just don't know."

Ron stared at her. He didn't want to hear this—he wanted promises and assurances, not confessions and warnings. Harry might be dying, might already be dead, and he might be holding in his hand a cup of life or death or gillywater. It was too late, much too late, to be going back now.

He raised his glass. "To Gryffindor," he said, and drank as fast as he could.

The potion was still hot and he could feel it burn a line straight to his stomach; a curious tingling sensation started there and spread out to his fingers and toes, a bit like goosebumps, but on the inside. For a moment it felt as if someone were gently squeezing his heart in their fist, and then he was left with naught but the tingling feeling and a scalded tongue. Hermione threw back her glass and gagged a bit, clutching her stomach. After a few deep breaths, she looked up at him again. He shrugged.

"So...so I suppose we wait, now," she said.

"All right."

She started to clean up the potion-making supplies. Ron went back to the window. The sun had not gone out and the water in the lake did not appear to be flowing uphill; he told himself this meant that Harry was still fine. Because he didn't know what he would do if Harry wasn't fine. He hadn't realized that until a few months ago, when they began this whole Horcrux adventure—really, not until Harry had gone to see Snape and come back ranting that he'd have to kill himself. Ron hadn't spent more than a few weeks away from Harry for a couple of years, had spent almost every day of the last three years with him, every other hour if not every single minute. At some point between their first day at Hogwarts and their last conversation, a Harry-shaped hole had formed in Ron's life, in his heart.

This wasn't brotherhood—Ron knew more than enough about that. Brotherhood was about loving and hating and accepting because you haven't really got a choice, because they'd been there forever and would be whether you liked it or not. With Harry there had always been a choice, and the choice cleaved Ron's life in two: there had once been a time Before Harry and now there was a time With Him. Ron had a feeling that he sort of needed Harry, not the same way he needed to breathe, but the way he needed fresh air to breathe in.

That was why he'd been so quick to agree when Hermione said she thought she knew of a way to protect Harry, to ensure that even if he were some sort of half-Horcrux he could still defeat You-Know-Who without getting hurt. It wasn't about saving Harry really; it was about saving a part of himself.

Hermione was suddenly standing at his elbow and her work smock was gone; her blouse had huge sweat spots under her arms and breasts. She watched the horizon, and Ron wondered if she were looking for the same thing as he was—the omen that meant they were wrong or too late. Her hand rested on the stone sill of the window, dark where different ingredients had gotten ground into the folds of her knuckles. He covered it with his own, and she started, and smiled weakly at him.

A thousand things to say came to mind.

Hermione, I love you.

Hermione, I'm terrified.

Hermione, I think I might be a little bit gay.

Hermione, you've got something on your face.

Hermione, you're beautiful.

Hermione, I wouldn't mind dying like this.

Hermione, everything is going to be fine.

He didn't say any of them.

"Ron," Hermione suddenly said, looked back at the horizon.

"What?"

"...nothing."

And before he could speak, before he could move, a pain beyond all concievable pain burst from the center of his chest. Sight and sound and consciousness retreated, and he was falling through a screaming, sucking void—he felt stretched beyond endurance, strained and tight, ready to shatter—

—everything stopped—

And then there was silence.

He managed to open his eyes enough to see the tower room—a shadow passing over the sun—hadn't it worked? Had they lost? But consciousness slipped away again, and darkness reigned.

 

II.

Hermione floated in a warm, soft cocoon, miles away from her body or anything else that might trouble her. Intermittent voices and distant discomfort couldn't tempt her back; she preferred this muzzy darkness, where she dreamed of Ron and Harry and a thousand happy things they may or may not have done together. There were no dark shadows in these dreams, no fear or dread bowing their backs, just sunlight and joy and freedom. Just her and her boys and the pleasure of being together.

It couldn't last, though; she knew it couldn't last. The pain hit first, sharp aches in every part of her, as if she had glass in her joints and knives in her muscles and bones. Then she began to tease words out of the voices, to recognize the people at her bedside.

"...not entirely sure when they'll awaken. The Healers have done all they can..."

"...Slughorn has been examining the materials..."

"...nothing further until she regains consciousness."

"When will that be?"

"We're not sure."

"What will you do then?"

"We can evaluate her condition more fully when she's awake. There are, er, medicines that we can give her. Treatments."

"What sorts of treatments?"

Hermione dragged her eyes open and squinted until she could make out the two people in jumpers and jeans at her bedside, talking with a Healer. She knew that tone, befuddled and uneasy and trying so very very hard. "Mum?" she managed to croak through a dry throat. "Daddy?"

There were shrieks and gasps and her name, but the picture fell and faded, and when she was conscious again her parents had turned into Professor McGonagall. "Miss Granger? Are you awake?"

"Yes," she said, aware that her throat wasn't as dry and the full-body ache wasn't as sharp, except at one point high between her breasts. The headmistress called a Healer and she spent thirty exhausting minutes wiggling toes, touching her nose and answering questions to prove her mind was sound. As a reward she got a glass of cool water and a cocktail of potions to chase it. Something in it made her go blurry and numb, and then she fell into deep, restoring sleep, though she lost the dreams of her boys.

Bits filtered in—that this was a private room in a hospital stuffed to the gills, that a rotating wheel of Weasleys and Order sat with her and sometimes escorted her parents, that the sun was moving in the tiny window whether or not she could track its passage. Sometimes she remembered holding converstions with her watchers, but it was hard to tell them from the hazy half-dreams she had between waking and sleeping. It was when she realized that she hadn't heard the names Harry or Ron that she struggled to wake herself, to be coherent enough to ask the question. This time, Remus Lupin was there.

"P-professor?"

He started and dropped his newspaper. "Hermione? How do you feel?"

She shook her head, then had to wait until it stopped. "Harry. Ron...."

Lupin sighed with a little smile that eased her heart. "I was waiting for that." He picked up the paper and folded it so she couldn't see the headline from here. "They're no worse off than you, which, all things considered, is something in the way of a miracle."

"What happened?"

Remus leaned forward, elbows on knees. "That's actually what we wanted to ask you."

That's not an answer and it makes her head hurt. "I don't know...had to save him..."

"Save who? Harry?"

"It must've worked if...I mean...Hogwarts wasn't attacked?"

He shook his head. "The school was never in danger. In fact, if Mr. Filch hadn't been so meticulous about his maintence schedule, you and Ron may have been overlooked entirely—all the attention was on Godric's Hollow."

Her mind supplied the image: a cluster of houses and shops going gentle into that good night, surrounded by trees still late-summer green that concealed so cunningly a little wizard graveyard and a weed-eaten foundation that still throbbed of powerful magic. She wondered what was left. "Harry won?"

He patted her hand—she remembered Ron touching her there just before—and smiled. "Harry won."

That's all that really mattered, and she fell asleep again.

The next time she was awake long enough she had an awkward conversation with her parents; Mr. Weasley had been sitting with them but suddenly had an urgent need to look in on Ron. She talked to her parents and tried to explain to them what happened, tried to bridge a seven-year gap between worlds with vague words about spells and protection. They listened so hard and she tried to be simple, but she knew deep down that this wasn't like marks or a prefect's badge. This simply didn't have enough enamel or ceramic involved, it was so much bigger than a root canal, and while there was plenty of blood to be had, it wasn't coming from anyone's gums. It just wouldn't get through to them. It never did.

In a way it was a relief when Moody, Slughorn and Lupin descended on her two days later and she could explain it all accurately to someone who understood.

"Have you heard of the Sineater Spell?" she asked them.

Slughorn started and Moody's true eye narrowed. "That's powerful Dark magic, lassie," he mumbled.

"No—" She tried to straighten on the pillows so she could look the men in the eye; Lupin helped her up. "No, it's not—well, I mean, it is, but we didn't—I had to modify the spell a bit."

"Modify?"

Moody scowled and Slughorn's eyebrows rose, but Lupin cleared his throat. "I'm afraid I'm not as up-to-date on my higher-order Dark rituals as I perhaps ought to be—the Sineater Spell?"

"A filthy, underhanded trick for a wizard scared of pain," Moody mumbled. "He casts it on a victim, and any injuries he suffers—curses, broken bones, hangnail—transfer. Victim could be miles away, and suddenly comes out with all kinds of hurts. The caster can keep going until the victim can't."

"It's not really that Dark," Hermione protested. "Well—not always. When the victim is willing it's not. That's what I started with."

"But Potter would never have agreed—"

She looked at her hands. "Harry never knew."

Three wizards stared at her. Slughorn was the first to catch on with a bit of a laugh. "Surely—you don't mean you completely inverted—a spell that powerful—"

"We had to do something," she said. "Snape told him—it was in Dumbledore's notes—it was possible that, that a piece of Voldemort's soul could've been inside Harry, sort of like a Horcrux but not really, and if Harry was going to kill him the he might—it could have—and that wasn't the hard part anyway, inverting the sign."

Slughorn's moustache sagged. Moody's magical eye was threatening to fall out of his head. Lupin cleared his throat. "Let's, er, let's take it from the beginning, Hermione, if you could—?"

So she explained it: the theoretical gymnastics that let her take the basic principle of the spell and twist it, reshape it into a potion that would link her and Ron to Harry, that would let them absorb his wounds, that would—if Snape had been right—though of course he couldn't have been—that would protect Harry's soul when (if) the bit of Voldemort's came free. Just in case.

Halfway through her description, Slughorn started taking notes. Near the end, Moody wiped down his magical eye as if he feared he was seeing things "...and, well, in theory when his body was destroyed the last bit of his soul should've come loose—it wasn't properly bound—and because of the potion Harry wouldn't be harmed. And...I supposed it worked, didn't it?"

They stared at her for so long a blush rose in her cheeks, and she had the absurd urge to apologize. Then Moody hauled himself heavily up on his staff. "Well, lassie, you've got quite a thing to be proud of. Potter wouldn't be here if not for you."

"Well, we helped," she mumbled, and touched the heavy bandage over her heart.

"A bit more than help, I think," Slughorn said as he scanned his notes.

"It was just a potion," she said again. "I don't even know whether it worked properly."

Lupin folded his hands in his lap. "Hermione, Harry is now the only wizard in history to have survived the Killing Curse twice."

Her head went a little bit swimmy. Lupin helped her lie back down. "W-what?"

"Harry's been awake just as you have," he repeated, "and we've spoken to some of the Death Eaters captured in the village."

"The Killing Curse?"

Slughorn chuckled a bit shrilly. "Yes, it's—it leaked to the media, of course. You didn't wonder how you all got private rooms? Rita Skeeter has been tearing her hair out trying to finagle an interview—"

"I think we've tired her out enough for one day, Horace," Remus said softly. "She needs to catch up on her rest." But he didn't leave the room with the other two men, just waited at the foot of the bed as if he had something more to say. Or perhaps knew that she did.

"Professor—" She licked her lips. "I didn't know. I mean, I didn't think it was so powerful—"

"You knew you were risking your lives," he said softly.

"Well...yes. That's part of the spell."

"And you and Ron kept it between you?"

Hurt, she realized—that was the subtle flick in his face. It hadn't even occurred to her. "We were—I didn't even know it if would work at all," she said. "It might've poisoned us."

Lupin sat slowly on the end of the bed. "I would also venture that you wanted to operate without interference for this particular venture."

"Right," she said, then bit her lip. "And, well...it had to be people who really, really, lo—really care for him, for the spell to work. And I didn't want to have to judge."

Because nobody else would've been enough.

Remus nodded, and she thought he was satisfied. But then he asked another question in a mild and slightly curious tone. "What about Ginny?"

"...what?"

"Ginny. She was at the castle with you those last weeks."

"Oh..." Hermione considered lying, because what words could possibly explain that mess without giving too much away? But this was Lupin, and she owed him the truth. "She...Ginny's been dating Neville since Easter hols."

"Oh?"

"Harry didn't seem to mind."

"Oh."

Lupin left her alone after that; they all left her alone, except for her parents, who visited a few more times but never stayed long. It gave her an awful lot of time to think, about gaps, and about her boys, and about something Ginny said over Christmas—how with Neville she didn't have to compete with the well-being of the whole wizarding world. Ginny'd said she still liked Harry but it probably wasn't ever going to be. And Harry, when Ron accidentally let something slip from a letter, had shrugged and said that the was happy for her, really, and what did they think lay over the next rise...?

Hermione never felt like she was competing with anything for Harry. She wondered if Ron even felt he was competeing with Harry for her. He ought to know by now that he wasn't: she cared for them both, worried for them both, needed them both in equal measure, because when she first flung herself over the gap between worlds, they were the ones who caught her. Harry and Ron, her boys, together and equal.

Which, in reality, was probably the problem.

A few days later, she got to see Ron; the Healers bundled her into an armchair and floated it down a hall rather fuller of Aurors than she had expected. His family all cleared out to make room for her and didn't seem to find their way back in. He looked worse than she felt: his skin was stretched and pale and he had dark rings in his eyes, and his pajamas were unbuttoned far enough to just expose a thick bandage on his chest. "Hey," he said warmly, a little bit hoarse, with a smile. "Shouldn't you be resting up?"

"I'm fine," she said. "What about you?"

"Oh, I'm great." His arms trembled when he pushed himself up on the pillows. "As near-death experiences go, this has been one of the better ones, don't you think?"

"You shouldn't joke."

But it wasn't really a joke, and her heart wasn't really in the scold. There was another gap here—something different, something wrong, and she wondered what could possibly have changed while they were seperated and bedridden. She wanted to take his hand; it was just out of reach.

"Did you—have they let you see Harry?" Ron asked suddenly.

"No," she said. "The Healer told me he wasn't well enough to visit."

"Told me the same thing," Ron said, "but Bill let slip....said Harry doesn't want visitors, won't talk to anyone."

"Oh."

"I wondered if maybe you—"

"No."

"Oh."

Maybe nothing had changed. Maybe this gap had been present all along, and she just hadn't been paying attention. Maybe—she caught Ron's eye and his faint blush—if she was honest, maybe this gap had a name.

 

III.

Harry curled up on his side and closed his eyes when he heard the steps at the door. If it was another Healer, they wouldn't bother him unless he needed another potion or test or meal. If it was an Auror, they'd go away as soon as they confirmed, yet again, that he hadn't vanished from the most secure room in the whole bloody building. If it was anyone else, well, he'd already proven he could outstubborn McGonagall, Scrimgeour and two-thirds of the Weasleys when it came to feigning sleep, and he couldn't think of anyone else who might come looking for him.

The door opened, slowly, and two sets of feet shuffled in. "Is he asleep?"

"Dunno—Harry?"

Correct that. There were two people.

He burrowed deeper into the pillows, hoping the motion looked natural. The shuffles came closer, and he felt the bed shift incrementally as someone leaned against the footboard. "If he's asleep, we shouldn't wake him," Hermione hissed.

"Nah," Ron said. "He's faking. Harry, I know you're faking."

Harry rolled onto his back and managed to lever himself up on his elbows and fumble for his glasses. They were standing at the foot of the bed together, the perfect pair of them—Ron leaning on the footboard and Hermione leaning on a cane, both in dressing gowns. They looked stretched and worn and...well, fragile, sort of, in a way they were't supposed to. "Sorry," he said. "Wouldn't want to trick you two, after all."

He didn't look away fast enough to miss the uneasy glance between them. Hermione cleared her throat. "How are you feeling?" she asked, a little tentatively.

"Probably about the same as you," he said.

"Oh."

Ron coughed a little. "That was a right filthy trick you played on us with the letter, you know."

"I guess that makes us even, then."

Hermione bit her lip. Ron's hand tightened on the bedstead. Harry looked at his own hands and the way the tendons stretched his skin when he made a fist, and rehearsed the somewhat childish refrain that if they were really his friends they would know what they'd done, that if they cared he shouldn't have to say it.

"Wh—"

"You lied to me," he blurted to the sheets. He looked up at Hermione's wide eyes. "You told me I wasn't a Horcrux."

She took a step back and almost tripped over the cane. Harry couldn't separate guilt from concern from a touch of nasty glee. He had trusted her, had been so eager to hear Snape's words dismissed after that awful confrontation at Azkaban. He remembered it in flashes and bursts: Snape sneering through rusty bars, wheezing like a dying man as he spoke. Dumbledore didn't tell you because he knew you were impulsive, irrational—

He told me everything he knew!

He didn't tell you this.

I don't believe you.

Then you will fail.

But Hermione had said no, it couldn't be, and he'd believed her—

"How can you be sure?" Ron asked, sounding a bit squeakier than usual. "I mean, you can't—there's no was to tell—"

"Voldemort knew." Harry didn't want his voice to shake when he said that, dammit, he wanted to stay properly annoyed with them. "He figured it out ages ago...that's why he left off hunting me for so long. He explained it all—he said I should know why I couldn't have won before I...before he..."

There was a lump in his throat he couldn't swallow down. He was being ridiculous. He took off his glasses and pressed his fists in his eyes and breathed, like he could inhale the late-summer drizzle outside his window and breathe out the burning forest in his head. He was so tired of this, it had been weeks already, it was supposed to be over...

His bed shifted and he realized Hermione had sat down, a little too quickly to say it was completely intentional. He pulled his knees up a bit to give her room. "I'm sorry," she said softly. "I shouldn't have...I mean, I didn't really lie to you, because you weren't—it wasn't really—"

Ron cut her off. "We're sorry we kept things from you," he said, and sat down on the other side of the bed—slowly, like something might break. "But like you said, that trick with the note makes us even."

The note. He snorted. "Don't see why it matters, since it didn't even work."

"What d'you mean, it didn't work?" Ron demanded. "You left us—"

"It was for your own good."

He knew they were the wrong words right away. Ron's face flushed deep red and he tried to leap to his feet, but his legs buckled halfway and he barely caught himself on the edge of the mattress. Somehow that only mad Harry more annoyed than ever. "That's not how it works, mate," Ron said, a little breathless. "That's not it at all. We were in this together, weren't we?"

"What, you wanted to come get tortured by a load of Death Eaters and—" Shit, his voice was doing the catching thing again, and Hermione's eyes were as round as saucers. Harry kicked off the blankets and hauled himself to his feet, to stare out the window at the spitting gray skies. He just needed to get a grip on himself, was all.

"Harry," Hermione said softly, tentatively, "we only wanted—we want to help you—"

"Maybe I don't want your help," he told her reflection in the wobbly glass.

"Why not?"

"I don't want you getting hurt."

"We can take care of ourselves," Ron said.

Harry snorted. "Yeah, you're doing a marvelous job of that—you can barely stand up."

"You're one to talk, mate."

He realized that he was bracing himself on the window frame with both arms; he straightened up through a dizzy little rush. "I wanted to protect you," he snapped, "though a fat lot of good it did, since you still got hurt—"

"We were trying to protect you—"

"Exactly!"

Harry turned too fast and got really dizzy; he stagged to the bed and nearly tumbled face-first into the pillows. Hermione reached out to him, but he shrank away from her hand with the horrible, irrational thought that if she touched him he might just come apart at the seams altogether. He managed to sit braced his arms on his knees and took deep breaths, and didn't look up from his bluing toes on the tile floor.

Hermione cleared her throat. "This is about the potion, isn't it?"

"Yes," he said, "this is about your bloody potion." Remus had explained it all—well, the bits he'd understood of it—but Harry had understood even less, just that he had put them in danger—again—without even knowing it.

Hermione's voice took on an edge she rarely used with Ron, much less Harry. "You're mad at us because we saved your life?"

"You could've died."

"You would have."

"I don't—" He stopped himself because it wasn't true. It wasn't that he didn't care whether he died. It was that he cared more whether they did. For the past couple months they had been his, well, his everything, really—no, more like the last couple of years, though it had taken ten long months to strip off the extra bits and let him see it. He wasn't sure he wanted a life without them in it—or knowing he'd taken one from the other, which would almost be worse. They wouldn't be the same people without each other. He might as well lose both as either one.

But he hadn't a hope of putting all that in words, so he shook his head and said, "You don't know what might've happened. I might've been fine."

"Oh, yeah," Ron said, "'cause sometimes the Killing Curse just tickles a bit."

"Did you know?" Harry asked, looking at Hermione. "Did you know the potion would protect me from that?"

She began to toy with the cane she'd brought in. "I planned it—I thought if you were, well, a sort of a Horcrux, we'd need a way to—the soul fragment should've come free when he died, but you might have been—well, in theory...."

She didn't finish her sentence. Harry touched the wound in the center of his chest, remembered seeing the green light pass through his heart. He remembered the force of it knocking him out of the world—the soft black nothing that moved like a fluttering veil—the mind-rending free-fall towards some shadowy target he couldn't see and didn't really want to, because if he saw where he was going there would be no turning back...

"Harry?"

He remembered the fall—

"Harry, you okay there?"

—and the feeling of suddenly being caught.

Hermione reached out towards his arm again. "Harry, are you—?"

"I'm fine," he said quickly, and twitched away.

Hermione sat back and studied him for a while. "No," she said softly, "you're not."

"I'm fine," Harry said, and he turned, and was a bit surprised to find himself almost shouting. "I'm brilliant! I just won the bloody war, I've never been better! It's over and I'm free and I'm alive and you're alive and everything's just bloody terrific and—" His voice was doing the cracking thing again, and he was so damn tired— "and it's over, you know, and I didn't want your help and I don't need your help because it's done. I'm done."

There was a long beat of silence. Harry looked at the creases in the sheets.

"I don't suppose you want to talk about it," Hermione said.

Harry found himself chuckling for the first time in—hell. The first time. "I just need a little time. Need to pull myself together."

"Nobody's pushing you, mate," Ron said hastily.

Hermione scooted up the bed, though—Harry would've scooched away, but the headboard was at his back and there was no escape. "But if you want to talk—" She reach out, caught his hand in hers—

The first thing Harry thought of was how his scar used to hurt, but that didn't make sense because this didn't hurt at all. It was a warm, liquid feeling that started somewhere in his heart—no, in his chest, in the place where the curse had blown through him—and it filled him up like one of Dudley's fizzy drinks, or the sweet champagne he'd had at Bill's wedding (was that the last time they'd been happy, all in one place?). It wasn't overpowering like Felix Felicitas, just a steady pleasant glow all through him.

"Oh," Hermione said, and he just knew that she could feel it, too.

Ron looked at them with a furrowed brow for a moment, and Harry almost jerked his hand away—holding hands and feeling bubbly with your best friend's girlfriend was Not On, even if it was one of the most wonderful things he'd ever done. Snogging Ginny in the bushes had never been like this, so good and right and real. But Hermione grabbed Ron's hand from all the way down the bed instead, and the moment they touched the bubbly feeling intensified and Ron's eyes went huge and round. "Blimey—what—Hermione?"

"I think," she said a bit unsteadily, "I think...this might be a side-effect."

"Of the potion?"

"Or the curse." She was squeezing both their hands in hers, as if weighing something. "Or maybe it's a sort of interaction effect...I mean, if the potion worked the way I meant it to...or even if it didn't..."

"Going to run off to the library to research it?" Harry asked. He meant it as a joke; he wanted it to be a joke. He wanted this feeling to go on forever but he knew that if they sat like this much longer he was going to lose the little bit of self-control he'd worked so hard to build up over the past year or so. He should pull his hand away. He should send them back to their rooms.

"We're not going anywhere," Hermione said, and pressed Ron's hand into Harry's.

Ron jumped a little bit at the contact, and Harry probably did too, because something just seemed to pop into place when they completed the circle. Everything felt together, felt right, and Ron suddenly grabbed Harry's hand and squeezed, and if it wasn't appropriate to hold hands with your best friend's girlfriend it certainly wasn't on to do it with your best friend's boyfriend, except Hermione didn't seem to mind—she was holding them together and grinning at little—and Harry had the mad urge to laugh out loud, so he did.

"Harry?" Ron asked warily, and his grip went slack. "You all right?"

He grabbed Ron's hand back and tried to wipe the tears from his glasses with his sleeve. "Yeah," Harry gasped. "Yeah, I'm brilliant."

But then both of them were creeping up the bed, frowning—Hermione's arm around his shoulders, Ron's free hand light on his knee—concerned. It was funny in its own way, those grave expressions, but Harry suddenly stopped feeling like laughing. They were leaning in towards him and oh-so-close and it was lighting up his senses in a way that had nothing to do with spells and souls.

Hermione started to say, "Harry, are you sure you—"

He kissed her. It was soft and dry and a little bit awkward, at least until she started kissing back. At least until Ron's hand clamped down on Harry's thigh, and Harry turned away half-braced for a fist in his face and got another kiss instead, a little rougher and a little wetter, while Hermione said, very softly, "Oh."

He pulled away from Ron and they all just sort of stared at each other for a moment. Harry cleared his throat. "Um," he asked, "what was the question?"

"Are you really okay?" Hermione asked again. "I mean really."

"Yeah," he said, with more conviction than he'd thought he had. "Really. I just need to...um...relax a little."

"That, we can help you with," Ron said with a certain huskiness in his voice. Then he ruined the effect by yawning tremendously, and that set them all off at once.

Harry chuckled. "I suppose you'd better go back..."

"I told you, we aren't going anywhere," Hermione said firmly.

He blinked. "But—I mean, the Healers—"

"Can sod themselves," Ron said.

"You need some sleep," he said weakly. "We all do."

Hermione glanced briefly at Ron and then smiled. "We can get plenty of that right here."

And Harry found himself being pushed back on the bed, and Ron and Hermione swung their legs up and tucked their feet under the blankets. He didn't exactly see how they were all going to fit, but he let himself be nudged and jostled, and somehow ended up squished between the two of them, too tangled up to move. Not that he wanted to.

They were alive and together and the danger was past. He supposed that was as good a place as any to start.

IV.

"It's not just Harry I'm worried about," Arthur said heavily. "Ron's been acting terribly peculiar these past few days, and I think he's a bit upset that Harry won't talk to him."

Remus considered his possible responsed and decided on an absent-minded nod. "Yes. I think Hermione feels much the same way."

"Of course, of course..."Arthur swept his hand over his scalp, a habit held over over from when he still had hair. "They're a matched set, those three. Cut one and they all bleed."

"Literally, now." Remus nodded to the Aurors guarding this wing of the hospital, most of whom had become quite familiar as of late.

Arthur went oddly pale and coughed. "Yes, well—I meant—still, do you think?"

"I don't know. I'm not entirely sure Hermione knows, and she invented the potion." Remus had gone over her notes and Dumbledore's at length, but even with the help of Slughorn and Moody he was still quite as confused as ever. There were certainly implications that Hermione had overlooked in her procedures, ones that could potentially explain what they'd observed, except they'd only occur under specific conditions, ones he found more than a bit preposterous.

Then again, if he were to judge by Hermione's oddly halting answers and Ron's recent sullenness, perhaps it was more likely than he was admitting...

The came to Harry's door, and Remus mentally braced himself for another duel of wills with the younger man. Arthur looked about equally enthusiastic. "He'll make an effort for his friends," he said as if trying to convince himself. "He'll want to see them, after all of this..."

Remus opted for the noncommital grunt this time. Harry had endured far more than any wizard should have to, especially one so young, and if he was determined to cope by presenting the world with a stone face Remus felt there was very little anyone would be able to do about it, not even Ron and Hermione. Then again, if some of his more preposterous hunches were true...

"We'll see," he said, and knocked on the door, more out of politeness than anything. He'd give Harry his one chance to be civil.

After a few moments of silence, Arthur's shoulders slumped, and Remus resigned himself to another conversation with Harry's back. He eased the door open and poked his head inside—

—and immediately poked it back out.

"Problem?" Arthur asked.

Remus cleared his throat. "Not at all. I, er, think Harry may want to be left alone right now."

"That's all he wants these days, Remus."

Remus weighed his options and took his hand off the doorknob. "Perhaps you should see for yourself."

Arthur poked his head in the room. Arthur poked it right back out. "Oh."

"Yes."

"That does answer that question."

Remus shut the door as quietly as he could. "I, ah, don't think it would be advisable to tell Molly about this."

"Oh, lord, no," Arthur said. "Er, I mean, not yet."

Remus nodded. "I think a cup of tea is in order right about now, don't you?"

"Oh, indeed."

As they walked right back out of the high-security wing, Remus finally admitted that perhaps the most preposterous hunches just might be the right ones after all.